In recent years, many higher education institutions, including Princeton University, have begun publicly acknowledging the fact that they exist upon and benefit from the land of Indigenous peoples.
The official land acknowledgment found on the Office of Inclusion & Diversity website by Inclusive Princeton reads as follows: “Princeton University sits on land considered part of the ancient homelands of the Lenni-Lenape peoples.” But despite recognizing the importance of land acknowledgments, tribal leaders and Indigenous studies scholars told The Daily Princetonian that such acknowledgements are not sufficient in recognizing complicated histories and attempting to mend tenuous relationships.
The Lenni-Lenape peoples were the first inhabitants of the region where the University is situated, occupying regions of eastern Pennsylvania, parts of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. European settlers were first recorded arriving in the region in the 17th century as settlers traveled north from the Mid-Atlantic along the trails of the Lenni-Lenape people. The specific area that the University currently occupies was named “Princeton” in 1724 as more and more wealthy European settlers began building and living in houses along some of these paths.
The University, which was named the College of New Jersey at the time, moved from Newark to Princeton in 1756. There is no record of consultation or discussion with the Lenni-Lenape people regarding this move within Lenni-Lenape territory and the acquisition of their land by the institution, according to the University’s records.
The fact that the University occupied the land of the Lenni-Lenape people was largely ignored for much of the institution's history. In 2018, the Princeton Histories working group recommended that the University recognize and acknowledge the history between the institution and the land of the Lenni-Lenape people.
The Lenni-Lenape tribe maintains to this day that they “never surrender[ed] their tribal identity or inherent sovereignty.” Today, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indian Tribe is officially recognized by and registered with the State of New Jersey. Their current headquarters are located in Bridgeton, Cumberland County, NJ.
The Reverend Dr. J.R. Norwood served the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape as a Tribal Councilman, an elected position, for 15 years, until 2019. He also served as the first Principal Justice of the Tribal Supreme Court for six years from 2013–2019. A short biography shared with The Daily Princetonian stated that he “represents his tribe on a national and international level.”
Norwood wrote to the ‘Prince’ about land acknowledgments and Princeton’s history with his tribe, a topic he views as “an important educational/informative role in affirming what has been a long overlooked history of the territory.”
“Land acknowledgments should be viewed as a beginning and not an ending,” Norwood wrote. “They should be statements that honor the past and pledge to show proper respect by building bridges into the future.”
The University does not have any official policy that requires land acknowledgment; however, there are some general guidelines regarding land acknowledgments available on Inclusive Princeton’s website. More and more events, groups, departments, and even professors have begun incorporating land acknowledgments into meetings and syllabi on campus.
One course that has incorporated a land acknowledgment into its curriculum is PSY254: Developmental Psychology, which is taught by Casey Lew-Williams, a professor and director of graduate studies in the psychology department. The introductory lecture for the course includes a slide with a land use acknowledgment that reads: “The land on which we gather to work, study, & learn is part of the unceded territory of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation.”
Other courses, such as MOL101 and ART100, include land acknowledgment clauses in their syllabi, while productions put on at Theatre Intime, McCarter Theatre, and Triangle Club shows include land acknowledgments in pamphlets handed out to attendees.
Whether or not land acknowledgments hold genuine value or are more performative than productive remains a topic of discussion on campus.
“It depends entirely on the kind of acknowledgment offered,” Sarah Rivett, a professor of English and American Studies, said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “Of course, it can be performative and empty, but it can also be meaningful if done with care and in accordance with Indigenous protocols.”
Norwood wrote, “modern ‘virtue signaling’ can cause some to miss the purpose of land acknowledgments.”
“Inviting dialogue with the traditional Indigenous communities with ties to the land and finding ways to correct erroneous presumptions, stereotypes, forms of erasure, and violations of inherent dignity should be the continuing goal,” he wrote. “No one can ‘fix’ the past. But we can impact the present and improve future prospects and relationships.”
He also emphasized that land acknowledgments should be productive for the people currently using the land.
“I never favor using them to speak of the victimization of my people, but rather as a celebration of our rich heritage and promoting an appreciation of the link people who are in our territory share with that legacy,” he wrote.
But the action should not end there, Norwood emphasized. He advocated for a Native American studies minor and major at the University and said he believes that “having a ‘seat at the table’ and a ‘heard voice’ regarding disciplines that touch on our history, culture, political issues, etc. is vital.”
Bhoomika Chowdhary is a staff writer who often covers University affairs/policy and research. She is also a senior copy editor for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.